Croatia slams the door on brutalized refugees

June 21, 1994|By Samantha Power | Samantha Power,Special to The Sun

NOVSKA, Croatia -- Some 462 Muslims, ethnically expelled from Serb-controlled Bosnian territory last week, have been refused entry by Croatia.

United Nations peacekeepers -- Jordanian and Nepalese troops -- have pitched tents at the border for the bewildered refugees, who include 110 children and 12 civilians in need of medical evacuation.

"We give them our rations, we cook for them and we give them everything we have in our hearts," said Jordanian Col. Nawash al-Madi, "because we know the situation they are coming from."

Croatia has refused to admit them on the grounds that it is already strained by the presence of 500,000 refugees and cannot absorb more.

"If we received every group, thousands would come, and we would give a green light to Serb ethnic cleansing," said Josip Esterajher of Croatia's Office for Displaced Persons and

Refugees. "We cannot turn all of Croatia into one huge refugee camp."

While relief workers are equally adamant that Croatia grant asylum, they concede the risk of a massive exodus. More than 2,200 non-Serbs have fled northern Bosnia since early May.

And, starting last week, the Bosnian Serbs did away with a paradoxical feature of their ethnic cleansing campaign -- a $350 exit fee to people they were trying to expel.

"This is the first free transport, and that is what is so frightening," said Gregory Austreng, the regional head of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. "If Croatia lets them in, the Serbs will keep sending them."

"The Serbs are beating them up, kicking them out of their villages and now busing them out for free," he said.

Most Muslims and Croats have already escaped the 70 percent of Bosnia controlled by Bosnian Serbs, but an estimated 70,000 remain on hostile turf in northern Bosnia.

With international mediators fine tuning the partition of Bosnia, local Serbs have reportedly entered the now-or-never phase of ethnic cleansing.

Croatian officials contend that the refugees are the United Nation's responsibility because the refugees were dropped off in "U.N.-protected areas."

"I don't know what the U.N. is doing in Croatia if it can't provide accommodation for 500 Bosnians," Mr. Esterajher said.

But international officials do not agree.

"Croatia has an obligation to accept refugees," said Peter Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia. "That is what sets civilized countries apart from the place these people fled, which is run by savages and murderers."

Mujo Talic, a 47-year-old Muslim, had tried to flee Serb-held Bosnia since February, when Serbian policemen tortured him with a metal-spiked baseball bat, blinded him in one eye and crippled his 78-year-old mother.

The Bosnian Serbs wanted him out, but by depriving him of work, stripping him of his possessions and demanding a $350 exit fee, they ensured that he would remain.

But a week ago, Serbian authorities rounded up Mr. Talic, his mother and 460 other Muslims in the Banja Luka region. "We were told to convert to orthodoxy or to leave," Mr. Talic said.

The eight buses transported the group out of Serbian-held Bosnia, only to dump them in Serbian-held Croatia, 55 miles southeast of Zagreb.

They had been promised immediate resettlement in Sweden, but they were deposited without even a Croatian transit visa.

"All that was important to the Serbs was that they threw us out. They didn't care how or where," said Mehmed Zepanic, 33.

The Banja Luka region once contained more than 250,000 Muslims and Croats. But when war broke out in April 1992, it sparked the most vicious ethnic cleansing campaign -- involving rape and concentration camps.

Though the camps have been shut down, refugee officials report continued beatings, robberies and killings of non-Serbs.

The refugees here say that their situation had become intolerable.

Every nibble the Muslim-led Bosnian army takes out of Bosnian Serb-held territory reportedly translates into added persecution of those minorities penned within that territory.

"We feel lucky to be out, but we feel sorry for those who stayed," Mr. Zepanic said. "The fewer of us there, the worse it is."

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